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Hospitals Overwhelmed During 1918 Flu Pandemic

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a six-day series about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic in Wheeling. It was written and researched by Sean P. Duffy and Erin Rothenbuehler of Archiving Wheeling (www.archivingwheeling.org), a collaborative community project of the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling.

Part 2: Overwhelmed

Wheeling’s two hospitals were quickly overwhelmed. According to Wheeling city council minutes, on October 22, Wheeling City Manager G. O. Nagle told the council that both the Wheeling Hospital and OVGH were nearly filled to capacity and that additional hospital beds would be needed.

Health commissioner Williams suggested, at one point, establishing an emergency hospital in the old Haskins Hospital property, foreshadowing similar talk by 2020 Mayor Glenn Elliott of reopening part of the OVMC building (formerly OVGH) for the same purpose in response to COVID-19. The Haskins idea was abandoned when the City found the property was too far gone from hospital grade, and the prospect of reuse too expensive and daunting. Instead, the focus shifted to expanding the capacity of the two existing hospitals. Like Wheeling’s 1918 city council, today’s city administrators may find the prospect of focusing on existing facilities a more prudent choice for the same reasons.

According to the 1918 minutes, Williams suggested, and Nagle proposed, that the hospitals increase capacity “by enclosing certain large porches which both hospitals possess by constructing temporary side walls, and installing emergency lighting and heating equipment.” This idea was executed by both institutions.

Nagle opined (in concurrence with Williams) that the city should pick up the tab, and furthermore, should pay for destitute citizens who became patients. These noble gestures were to fizzle when the pandemic subsided.

City Council then passed a resolution authorizing and empowering the City Manager and the Health Commissioner to “make such arrangements and take such action as in their judgment is reasonably necessary in caring for patients suffering from influenza during the present emergency.”

City Hospital During the Pandemic

After the 2019 closure of the Ohio Valley Medical Center (formerly Ohio Valley General Hospital) the Ohio County Public Library Archives was entrusted with the hospital’s board of directors’ minutes. Fortunately, the 1918 minutes are a part of the collection, and they provide interesting insights into the pandemic in Wheeling.

The Superintendent of OVGH in 1918 was Pliny O. Clark, and he submitted monthly reports to the board.

In his October 17 report, Clark noted that there were seventeen influenza patients at OVGH. They had been admitting such patients for two weeks, during which time two had died from pneumonia. Clark asserted that OVGH was the only hospital in the district to admit influenza victims for the first week. He later stated that the first case in Wheeling was diagnosed on October 2, 1918, and that no influenza patients had been refused by OVGH since the crisis had begun. Clark specifically named Wheeling and Glendale as the local hospitals that did not accept influenza patients at first, but noted that both were doing so by October 17.

In his November report, Clark said that the Health Commissioner had asked local physicians to send only emergency work to the hospital, which reflects the current situation as people are being asked to defer elective surgeries. For OVGH in 1918, the move proved wise, cutting the number of surgeries in half for November and by two thirds for December, by which time OVGH was caring for as many as 100 Influenza cases per day, yet the crowding situation was decreasing.

By November 19, OVGH had admitted 195 influenza patients, confining them to the Third and Fifth Floors. Many of these patients were placed on the Fifth-floor porch constructed in response to the recommendation by health commissioner Williams (see above). The entrances to the stairway from the second and fourth floors were temporarily blocked.

Volunteer school teachers (the schools having been ordered closed) were making supplies for the hospital. Clark was so impressed, he asked them to organize a permanent organization to be known as the Hospital Emergency Corps. “In addition to the school teachers,” Clark reported, “we have had several others who have assisted in various ways: Mrs. Alexander Glass assisting in the kitchen work continuously; Miss Anne Reymann also assisting in kitchen work, as well as Mrs. J. A. Bloch…”

Around the same time, the Intelligencer noted that Father Moye at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, not to be outdone, had volunteered the Catholic School teachers and Sisters from Cathedral School to lend a hand to the health department.

Influenza also afflicted OVGH board members, three of whom were absent from the November and December meetings.

At the December meeting, the Red Cross was said to be willing to supply pneumonia jackets for use in the hospital. In the age before antibiotics, such jackets were used to treat pneumonia patients by helping to keep them warm. They sometimes included rubber tubes through which warm water could be circulated.

Mrs. Alexander Glass (wife of the Wheeling Corrugating Co. founder and future Wheeling Steel chair), offered to pay for the rental of an apparatus developed in Cleveland for the treatment of pneumonia.

By January 1919, OVGH was almost exclusively treating influenza patients, the number of which began to drop in mid-December. Also in December, several OVGH doctors began to return from France. As late as March 1919, OVGH lost seven more influenza patients to pneumonia.

In December, Superintendent Clark discussed the growing costs of the pandemic to the hospital, exacerbated by the loss of revenue as many of the new cases were “charity cases.” Unusual expenses included the aforementioned pneumonia jackets ($2 or about $35 today), extra gowns, masks, and the cost of sterilization (alcohol), as well as the cost of expanding the staff to meet the emergency.

Clark and the board closed the year trying, unsuccessfully, to recoup some of the influenza expenses the hospital had incurred from the city of Wheeling, which had been promised by City Manager Nagle (see above).

Nurses

Early in October, the national Red Cross began pushing local organizers to recruit more nurses, nurses’ aides, and volunteers between the ages of 19 and 35 to help with the flu crisis. Local Red Cross supervisors Mrs. R.J. Bullard and Mrs. Susan Cook expected as many as 200 to be registered from the Wheeling area.

On October 5, the Intelligencer reported the sad news that Alice M. Young, a registered nurse from Wheeling who graduated from the Ohio Valley General Hospital School of Nursing class of 1901 and was working at Camp Sevier in South Carolina, died after a bout with influenza and pneumonia. She is the only woman from Ohio County listed in the Veteran’s Memorial Database maintained by the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History.

In his monthly report to the hospital board, OVGH Superintendent Pliny O. Clark made note of Young’s death, writing, “So far as we know, this is the first death among the twenty-three nurses who have gone into Red Cross work, from this Hospital.”

OVGH made noteworthy efforts to protect its nurses from infection. Clark wrote:

“We are protecting so far as we are able, by spraying twice or three times a day, and requiring that all nurses while on duty wear masks, and that they eat five times a day; furnishing the very best food we can procure; more meat than usual. We hope in this manner, to reduce the danger. Our Officers are, however, working at tremendous pressure, and I would not be surprised to hear at any time, of the entire force being stricken down.”

Indeed, as many as nineteen OVGH nurses were soon ill with influenza, and the city hospital was severely understaffed. One of these, a Miss Groves, died of pneumonia on October 22. A stricken intern recovered and returned to work. In addition to illness, many staff were lost to military service. By December, the school of nursing had canceled classes so that the students could be available to help with the influenza patients. A member of the housekeeping staff died in December and 19 of 21 laundry employees were out with the virus.

On October 11, eight local Wheeling graduate nurses, including Margaret Schwinn, Josephine Detterman, Cecilia Finnerty, Nancy Hoppel, Julia Severn, Grace Droppleman, Ann Burke, and Lula McMann, were sent off to either to Virginia or Camp Meade in Maryland, where the flu situation was particularly acute.

On October 22, the Red Cross made another plea, this time for 2000 “strong, cheerful, energetic, self-reliant, and typically American, that is, capable of self-sacrifice and devotion” women, between 25 and 35 years of age, for hospital and canteen work in France.

Even as recruitment intensified, reminders of the risk appeared in the daily news. On October 26, Elizabeth Woodville, an 18-year-old student nurse from Virginia, died of influenza and pneumonia at Wheeling Hospital.

The impact of the pandemic on nursing was significant. Owing possibly to the effects of war and pandemic, the OVGH school of nursing had only one probationer for spring 1919. Typical class size was thirty. Superintendent Clark theorized: “I expect…young women have been making such good wages, that they do not…now care to settle down to a three year’s grind in preparation for nurse’s work.”

Despite recruiting efforts at local high schools, the enrollment situation did not improve much by fall 1919, when Clark described the shortage as “acute” and “alarming.”

The series continues Tuesday.

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